Sex-positive cabaret ‘Don’t Tell Mama’ spotlights empowerment, inclusion

A group of students wearing black dance on stage.
Spotlight MT’s newest cabaret “Don’t Tell Mama” features themes of sex-positivity and inclusion.(Courtesy: Shanny Corcoran)

A group of 5C students suggestively pose on stage in raunchy clothing. 

“Mama, thinks I’m living in a convent, a secluded little convent, in the Southern part of France,” the actors croon to the sensual opening piano notes. “Mama, doesn’t even have an inkling that I’m working in a nightclub, in a pair of lacy pants,” the piano trills. 

Enter the deep tones of a saxophone. “Hush up, don’t tell Mama. Shush up, don’t tell Mama,” they sing. 

This is the opening number of the newest cabaret produced by Spotlight MT, the 5Cs’ student-led musical theater group, set to be performed from Nov. 4-6 at Seaver Theater. And while the actors are performing a Broadway number challenging purity culture in 1930s Berlin, their message is topical. Blending Broadway’s raunchiest numbers, “Don’t Tell Mama” isn’t exactly a show for Pomona Family Weekend. 

“These are the kinds of songs you can only perform at a college,” Spotlight MT teased in its casting call. 

“Here’s a moment you know… you’re fucked,” they sing from the Broadway musical “Spring Awakening.” And from “Legally Blonde”: “Look at my ass, look at my thighs.”

“Elvis, Elvis, let me be. Keep that pelvis far from me,” the actors sing from “Grease” in one number. In another, dancers glide and shimmy to “Does Your Mother Know?” from “Mamma Mia.” 

“Don’t Tell Mama” is a collaborative process, as actors and directors stitch a dozen Broadway shows together to make a cabaret of their own. 

“The show is filled with a bunch of confident people. It’s fantastic,” said Faith Henderson, PO ’25, a singer and dancer in the show.

The rehearsals are high energy: Downtime between numbers is filled with students helping each other learn some last-minute choreography or practicing costume changes.

Dancer and singer Nisha Saboo PO ’25 loves the transformative environment “Don’t Tell Mama” offers. 

“I get to be Elle Woods,” Saboo said. “And I’m the least Elle Woods person ever, so it’s really fun portraying that character.”

Yet there’s more to the raunchy fun. Underneath the cabaret lies a strong message of sex-positivity and inclusion. 

“The entire process of the show, the directors and the staff have been really conscious of people’s comfortability,” Henderson said. 

Actors have autonomy over their participation: What costumes they feel comfortable wearing, what songs they’d like to participate in and what dance moves feel right for them. 

“Our amazing crew told us so many times, ‘If you’re not comfortable with something, tell us, and we’ll modify it’,” Saboo said.

The rehearsal process has been affirmed by a culture of sexual empowerment and open dialogue. 

“On the first day itself, we had a lengthy conversation about comfort levels and open communication when it comes to making sure everybody is comfortable,” Saboo said. “It’s one thing understanding your own boundaries, but it’s another understanding someone else’s and being respectful of them.”

The show was born from a shared vision that began last year, when Annie Lewis PZ ’23 and Rosie Corr PO ’23 developed a friendship in a directing class taught by Jessie Mills, professor of theater and dance at Pomona.

Both Lewis and Corr, who co-direct “Don’t Tell Mama,” committed to fostering a welcoming environment.

“In our course, we really talked a lot about how theater has such a harmful power hierarchy,” Corr said. She spoke of her and Lewis’ shared commitment as directors “to … not abuse that power, to make everybody feel welcomed.”

“A lot of times people use this hierarchy to diminish other people’s work or to really exert their power,” Lewis said. “And that’s not what Rosie and I want to do at all. We ask the actors what they want to do. Because at the end of the day, if we’re giving them a direction that they don’t vibe with, it’s not going to look good, and they’re going to be uncomfortable.”

As “Don’t Tell Mama” advocates for inclusion and collaboration, it’s fitting that students from all years and every 5C except Harvey Mudd College is participating. With Spotlight MT, there’s a job for everyone: Students work as music directors, lighting designers, dance choreographers and costume designers.

“I really cannot sing,” Lewis joked. “But I’m a part of Spotlight MT because I’m a director.”

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